Article: Digambara

Followers of the Jinas can be categorised into various sects or traditions. All religions have developed similar divisions, often disagreeing on elements of belief and practice. All these groupings remain believers in the central doctrines of the religion. Towards the beginning of the Common Era, the Jains started to separate into two main groups. The disputes between these groups revolved around the practices and doctrine surrounding mendicants. The two sects of Digambara and Śvetāmbara Jains take their titles from the clothing practices of their monks.

These groupings slowly elaborated distinct doctrines and histories, with diverse canons of scriptures and significant figures. The principal sects each contain smaller subsects, which split from the original sect over disagreements regarding doctrine and practice.

Sects are usually based on monastic lineages. Tracing sectarian development is particularly difficult for the Digambara tradition. Records kept by mendicant orderspaṭṭāvalis or gurv-āvalis – form the largest body of documentary evidence for the development of sects. However, Digambara orders are based in large part on the individual monk and his followers and thus record-keeping is not considered vital.

Regardless of the importance of individual mendicants in the development of Digambara Jainism, significant subsects originated within the lay community, such as the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth, the Terā-panth and Bīs-panth.

This piece is a summary of the article "Digambara". The full article will be available soon.


This painting from an Ādityavāra-kathā manuscript depicts monks preaching to lay men. The mendicants are Digambara even though their white robes resemble those of Śvetāmbara monks. Raising scriptures high, the monks sit on low platforms

Lay men listen to monks
Image by British Library © CC0 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

Digambara Jains tend to commonly use the following Sanskrit words for a ‘sect’:

The label saṅgha can refer to two concepts. Firstly, saṅgha can mean the ‘fourfold community’, which comprises monks, nuns, lay men and lay women. Its second meaning describes the ‘monastic community’ – sādhu-saṅgha or muni-saṅgha.

Both meaning ‘group’, the words gaṇa or gaccha are most commonly used for ‘monastic orders’. Most Digambaras tend to prefer gaṇa.

Main characteristics

This statue of Mahāvīra, the 24th Jina, is in the lotus position of meditation. Typically of Digambara idols, he is naked and has closed or downcast eyes, with no headdress or jewels. Mahāvīra is identified from his lion emblem, flanked by svastikas.

Idol of Mahāvīra
Image by Dayodaya © CC BY-SA 3.0

The Digambara sect is named after one particular practice of its monks.

The monks live naked, following the example of the Jinas and their monastic disciples, who they believe rejected clothing as part of their renunciation of all worldly attachments. They are thus ‘clothed’ – ambara – in ‘the directions’ or ‘the sky’ – dik or dig. The sect is therefore known as Digambara, from the Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘sky-clad’. Only full monks – munis – go naked, as it is recognised as a test of complete detachment. Novice monks wear some clothing.

Female ascetics wear white garments. Forbidden to go naked, they are unable to renounce as fully as men so they are technically lay women who have taken advanced vows.

Characteristics of Digambara sect

Male mendicant clothing

  • Monkmuni – goes naked
  • Novice – ailaka – wears white loincloth
  • Junior novice – kṣullaka – wears three white garments

Female mendicant clothing

  • Nunāryikā – wears white sari
  • Junior novice – kṣullikā – wears white sari and shawl

Mendicant equipment

  • peacock-feather broom
  • water-pot

Holy texts


  • Ṣaṭkhaṇḍāgama
  • Kaṣāya-prābhṛta
  • Prathamānuyoga
  • Karaṇānuyoga
  • Caraṇānuyoga
  • Kathānuyoga


cannot achieve liberation

Sex of Jinas

all Jinas are male

Images of Jinas

  • closed eyes
  • naked
  • usually lack jewellery and embellishment

Digambara sectarian traditions

Digambara monks live naked to show detachment from worldly concerns, which is much honoured. A kṣullaka or junior novice wears three white garments while an ailaka wears a loincloth. When an ailaka is ready to become a monk he casts off his loincloth

Digambara monks and novices
Image by Takeo Kimiya © Takeo Kimiya

Full Digambara monks are rare these days. The early tradition of an individual monk’s gathering pupils continues in the present day. Digambara monks ‘seem to have an especially weak sense of standard training, of a line of pupillary succession, or of allegiance to an order’ (Carrithers 1989: 230). Junior monks follow a muni, who guides them in their spiritual development. An individual monk is expected to influence junior mendicants and lay people through his learning, personal example and charisma rather than through an official post or discipleship to a famous monk.

The emphasis on individual leaders rather than rule-based succession is likely to have been the case in the past too, though it would have been more complex when monks were more common. Establishing mendicant relationships of the past is even more complicated when the evidence for many Digambara monastic orders is so fragmentary. However, geographical location seems to be a strong factor in the foundation of sects. Dundas (2002: 121) highlights ‘the complexity of medieval Digambara ascetic organisation in which a plethora of sects and subsects, many of them totally obscure to us today, emerged on the basis of preceptorial association and geographical connection with particular regions and towns’.

The institution of the bhaṭṭāraka intensifies the involved nature of Digambara sectarian development. The various bhaṭṭārakas each have their own lineage. Attached to particular places, the bhaṭṭārakas cut across the influence of the wandering mendicants. Their longstanding presence tended to consolidate the Digambara tradition in certain areas and helped ensure its long-term survival.

Historical lineages

This manuscript painting shows monks in a forest. Fully-fledged monks from the Digambara sect are easily identified from their nudity, which signals complete detachment from worldly concerns. They carry only water pots and peacock-feather brooms

Digambara monks walking
Image by Wellcome Trust Library © Wellcome Library, London

The earliest Digambara community was the Mūla-sangha – ‘the Root Assembly’. It is said to go back to the 24th Jina, Mahāvīra, through Kundakunda, the most authoritative teacher for the Digambaras, who lived around the second to third centuries CE.

Available accounts, however, show that this main lineage split into four groups – gaṇas:

  • Sena-gaṇa
  • Deva-gaṇa
  • Siṃha-gaṇa
    • Nandi-gaṇa.

These four groups fractured into subdivisions. Each of these produced lineage texts – paṭṭāvalis – that are rather complex because they often reflect different traditions for the same sections of mendicant orders. One of the most developed monastic lineages is the Sarasvatī-gaccha.

The Mūla-sangha seems to have been influential in all the regions where Digambara communities existed from around the fifth to sixth centuries until very late. This is borne out by inscriptions, manuscript colophons and monastic lineages.

Another group was the Drāviḍa-sangha – ‘Dravidian Assembly’. It was founded by Vajranandin in the fifh century CE at Madurai, in Tamil Nadu. There are hints that mendicants of this group may have given up the traditional wandering life.

The Kāṣṭhā-sangha was another group that might have arisen in the seventh century. Its title could be related to a place name. One of their characteristics seems to have been the use of cow-tail brooms instead of the peacock-feather brooms of other Digambara mendicants.

Contemporary lineages

Broom and water-pot in hand, a Digambara monk makes the ritual gesture of seeking alms. A lay man dressed in sacred orange kneels before him, showing that he offers food. The ancient ritual of alms-giving has complex rites for both lay and mendicant

Digambara monk seeks alms
Image by Nalini Balbir © Nalini Balbir

Information on today’s lineages and their organisation is scarce. But these earlier divisions do not seem to be in force nowadays. Today’s Digambara monastic community goes back to six groups that existed in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Of these only the following three have survived to the present time (Flügel 2006: 350):

  • Śānti Sāgar ‘Dakṣiṇ’
  • Śānti Sāgar ‘Chāṇī’
  • Muni Ādi Sgar ‘Ankalīkar’.

The following table, giving the numbers of Digambara monks and nuns in 2000 and 2001, is based on the information on page 355 of Flügel 2006.

Digambara mendicants in 2000 and 2001


Male ascetics

Female ascetics










Bhaṭṭāraka monks

The striking maṭha – often 'mutt' in English – in Melsittamur is the main religious centre for Jains in Tamil Nadu. Led by Bhaṭṭāraka Laxmisena Swami, the mutt is at the heart of the Digambara temples in the village.

Maṭha in Melsittamur
Image by Vijayan Teacher © CC BY-SA 3.0

Among Digambaras in southern India, where this sect was historically concentrated, along with central India, there is a special type of monk. The bhaṭṭāraka – ‘venerable one’ or ‘learned one’ in Sanskrit – is not bound by the usual mendicant vows.

The bhaṭṭārakas do not practise nudity. They also differ from usual Digambara monks in that they live in a monastery instead of taking up the wandering life, travel using mechanised transport, own lands and estates and act as a kind of community manager.

The longstanding existence of a monastery – maṭha – in an area means that each has developed its own lineage. Successive bhaṭṭārakas have gradually accrued local and influence and have often been a significant regional power. This has contributed to the survival of the Digambara sect, especially when foreign rulers disapproved of the tradition of public nudity.

Lay traditions

A Jain lay woman holds up her hands and bows her head in devotion. Jains do not ask for things when they pray. For Jains praying is always joyful and means reverencing the qualities and example of the Jinas

Woman praying
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Sects seem to have followed a similar pattern of development as they originated. Most new sects grow up around a mendicant order that emerges. Strictly speaking, lay Jains are not members of sects because only monks and nuns belong to mendicant orders, which form the groupings known as sects. Lay Jains tend to follow mendicants who claim affiliation with certain monastic orders.

Despite this pattern, new sects have arisen that have lay founders or are oriented more towards lay people than mendicants. Some traditions have been established by men who were lay renunciates, not initiated monks. Other traditions have been founded by mendicants but have not produced monastic lineages.

The three lay traditions in the Digambara sect all originated in the northern and central regions of India. As their characteristic features relate to the practice of worship rituals, this was probably an important point in areas where Digambara Jains were smaller in number.

Taraṇ Svāmī Panth

A Jain temple-library holds sacred books, individually wrapped and labelled. The rice on the table in front is an offering left by worshippers. Jains consider their scriptures to be holy objects, with books often the focus of religious rituals.

Jain holy texts
Image by Malaiya © CC BY-SA 3.0

Members of the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth are the lay followers of Taraṇ Svāmī (1448–1515), a Digambara thinker who ‘took the vows of a celibate and thereby became a formal renouncer’ (Cort 2006: 265). In a period where full-fledged naked Digambara monks were rare, such celibate renouncers had an important role to play. Taraṇ Svāmī became a full Digambara monk at the end of his life. He has been presented as a ‘Digambara mystic, as Digambara ritual reformer, as trans-sectarian iconoclastic poet, as miracle-worker, and as Jina-to-be’ (Cort 2006: 267).

Taraṇ Svāmī is the author of 14 writings, the main message of which is that one has to realise the ultimate purity of the soul as being the liberated soul. This is in line with the teachings of Kundakunda.

There is, however, no continuous literary tradition, so that nothing is known of the period between Taraṇ Svāmi’s death and the 20th century.

Today followers of this lay path, the Taraṇ Svāmi Panthins, are mainly found in central India, especially in the historical area of Bundelkhand, in Madhya Pradesh. Numbering between 20,000 and 100,000, they do not worship Jina images, although their founder’s writings do not seem to really criticise this. Instead they venerate books by Taraṇ Svāmi and Kundakunda and also other Digambara scriptures, especially those that stress the nature of the soul.

Kundakunda’s Samaya-sāra is a key text so this movement is also called Sāmāiya-panth – ‘the Path of Sacred Books’. Books and not images are the objects of worship in their temples. The most important temple is known as ‘Nisaījī’, near the village of Malhargarh in Guna district. It is a memorial, as it was the place where the founder spent the last years of his life and died.

Rajneesh, alias Osho (1931–90), an internationally known Indian holy man, was born in a family that followed the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth (Cort 2006: 293ff.).

Terā-panth and Bīs-panth

Lay men and women kneel in prayer before a large idol of a Jina in a temple. The idol's plain style and downcast eyes are characteristic of Digambara images.

Lay people worship a Jina
Image by Sheetal Shah © Sheetal Shah

These two Digambara groups are found among the lay communities of north India. Since this division refers chiefly to rituals of worship, it does not really apply to Digambara monastic communities. As full renunciates, they do not perform worship in the same way as lay people.

However, there have been cases of Digambara mendicants being associated with a specific monastery headed by a bhaṭṭāraka. The institution of the bhaṭṭārakas started to be challenged and criticised in 17th-century India, when this division between the two sects emerged. The development of the Terā-panthins and Bīs-panthins thus had some impact on mendicants as well. There was no such challenge in south India and therefore these subsects do not exist there.

Comparing the two subsects, Terā-panthins may be regarded as having views that are more radical or less compromising than Bīs-panthins.

Characteristics of Digambara Terā-panthins and Bīs-panthins



Reject the authority of the Digambara clerics – the bhaṭṭārakas

Accept the authority of the bhaṭtārakas

Worship Jina images

Worship Jina images

Do not worship images of deities that have not achieved liberation, such as yakṣas, yakṣīs and kṣetrapālas

Worship images of deities, who are unliberated

Worshippers do not use any substance considered to contain life in rituals

Worshippers offer the eight objects, such as flowers, fruits and sandalwood

The lamp ceremony is not performed

The lamp ceremony is performed

Followers worship while standing rather than while seated

Followers worship while seated or standing

Adhyātma movement

Of Digambara inspiration, this movement arose in Agra and other north Indian cities during the 16th to 18th centuries among lay men who met to discuss scriptures. One of its leaders was Banārasīdās.

Never organised as a sect, it is probably best described as free-thinking circles of thoughtful and slightly rebellious lay men who questioned some points of the scriptures and rituals.


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Michael Carrithers
Man (New Series)
volume 24: 2
Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; June 1989

Full details

‘A Tale of Two Cities: On the Origins of Digambar Sectarianism in North India’
John E. Cort
Multiple Histories: Culture and Society in the Study of Rajasthan
edited by Lawrence A. Babb, Varsha Joshi and Michael W. Meister
Rawat Publications; Jaipur, Rajasthan, India; 2002

Full details

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John E. Cort
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edited by Peter Flügel
Routledge Advances in Jaina Studies series; volume 1
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2006

Full details

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Shantaram Bhalchandra Deo
Deccan College Dissertation series; volume 17
Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute; Pune, Maharashtra, India; 1956

Full details

The Jains
Paul Dundas
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series; series editor John Hinnels and Ninian Smart; volume 14
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2002

Full details

The Jaina Path of Purification
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California USA; 1979

Full details

Gender and Salvation: Jaina Debates on the Spiritual Liberation of Women
Padmanabh S. Jaini
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1991

Full details

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Vidyādhara P. Joharāpurakara
volume 8
Jīvarāja Jaina Granthamālā; Sholapur, Maharashtra, India; 1958

Full details

‘Rethinking Religious Authority: A Perspective on the Followers of Śrīmad Rājacandra’
Emma Salter
Studies in Jaina History and Culture: Disputes and Dialogues
edited by Peter Flügel
Routledge Advances in Jaina Studies series; volume 1
Routledge Curzon Press; London, UK; 2006

Full details

‘The Revival of the Digambara Muni Tradition in Karnataka during the Twentieth Century’
Sabine Scholz
The Jaina Heritage: Distinction, Decline and Resilience
edited by Julia A. B. Hegewald
South Asian and Comparative Studies Heidelberg series; volume 2
Samskriti; New Delhi, India; 2011

Full details

The Unknown Pilgrims: The voice of the sādhvīs – the history, spirituality, and life of the Jaina women ascetics
N. Shāntā
translated by Mary Rogers
Sri Garib Dass Oriental series; volume 219
Sri Satguru Publications; New Delhi, India; 1997

Full details

Historical Dictionary of Jainism
Kristi L. Wiley
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Scarecrow Press; Maryland, USA; 2004

Full details


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